How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.

1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!


I used to be so naive.

But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

Why? Because’¦

The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.

Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

And this all happened without my even knowing it.

Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

Can you relate?

Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 times faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.


The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the ‘artistic’ one.

Although she was very talented, she always felt ‘dumb’ growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

So now in her marriage,  just a ‘5-watt’ eye-roll from her husband triggers a ‘1000 watt’ reaction.

Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.


We often say, ‘He made me mad.’  Or, ‘She upset me.’

The truth is no one can make you mad.

‘What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!’

No, actually, you make yourself mad.

Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

‘OK. I give up. What is that?’

2. Our ‘stories’ drive our feelings.

The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

I see or hear something.
Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

And this all happens in a flash.

That’s what creates my feelings.

So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.


The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
That story then creates feelings.
And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

Sandy says, ‘Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?’

What story do I tell? ‘She’s trying to control me.’

That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. ‘Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse’.

But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

Make sense?

In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

So what’s the conclusion of all this?

3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

So what does this look like?

Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

Here’s the one I used.

I looked at Sandy and asked myself, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?’

And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

‘Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.’

Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

If you change your story, you change your feelings.

Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

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    4 warning signs your marriage is in trouble (and what to do about it)

    Perplexed about problems in your marriage? Looking for solutions?

    ‘I didn’t know we had marriage troubles, but then, without any warning, she left!’

    ‘I felt a little strain in the relationship, but didn’t think it was a problem until I saw a text message revealing his affair!”

    Marriages blow up! And sometimes it happens unexpectedly!

    If you’re reading this and thinking ‘Who me? No, we’re doing fine.’

    Good. I hope so.

    …but read on, just in case.

    Because some couples don’t see the signs of the end until it’s too late.

    What are the signs that my marriage is in trouble?

    John Gottman researched it, and what he found was this:

    Four communication styles that predict the end of a relationship with over 90% accuracy.

    Gottman calls them, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

    As I briefly describe these warning signs, ask yourself, “Are any of these present in my relationship?”

    And if so, consider the answer I provide at the end, and let’s head off the horsemen before it’s too late!



    Instead of dealing with the problem, you attack your partner’s character.

    It looks something like this.

    ‘You’re so selfish!’

    When a conflict happens are you prone to attack your partner?

    But Chuck my partner IS selfish!

    Sure it feels that way, but can I let you in on a little secret?

    It’s because he’s only seeing his reality and not yours.

    But guess what?  The same is true for you!

    You’re only seeing your reality and not his.


    You say he’s selfish. And what is he saying (or thinking)?

    “You’re selfish!”


    “No! You’re selfish!”

    Am I close?

    It’s that limited, one-sided view of your relationship, that makes you seem selfish to each other. The psychological term for this is symbiosis.

    So what do we do? How do we stop the mudslinging?

    The answer is differentiation. The ability to hold your reality and his at the same time.

    Differentiation can happen through the Couples Dialogue.

    The Imago Couples Dialogue will help you begin to see your partner not just as someone who is “selfish”, but someone who is actually trying making a legitimate need known.

    Harville Hendrix said

    “Every criticism is a wish in disguise!”

    You just didn’t know there was actually something very legitimate behind that expression of “self”.

    But perhaps this was the real problem:

    Your partner expressed it in a way that didn’t acknowledge your reality, making you feel stepped on.

    Well that makes sense!

    This is what causes us to be defensive and see our partner as selfish.

    We both have the idea,

    “You and I are one. And I am the one.”

    And there’s this power struggle.


    The Couples Dialogue can help you transform a conflict into an awesome opportunity for growth and healing. More on that later.

    Let’s look at the second of the signs of demise.


    Contempt is when you assume a position of moral superiority.


    ‘What an idiot!’

    Remember that saying by Irving Becker?

    ‘If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.’

    Contempt is fueled when couples don’t feel connected. They start not liking each other.

    “The way he hold his spoon make me furious.”

    “I can’t stand all those annoying habits.”

    “The way he eats disgust me.”

    That’s contempt.

    Things that really didn’t bother you when you were close, now repulse you.

    Here’s a secret.

    It’s not the annoying habits that are the problem, it’s that you don’t feel connected.

    Once you reconnect all this contempt goes away.

    I promise.

    But here’s a sobering reality.

    If I don’t deal with contempt, that is the beginning of the end.

    Gottman says, of all these predictors, this one is the biggest predictor of divorce.

    There is an answer; a way to turn your contempt into close connection and rekindled love.

    We’ll get to that later.

    But first, for those who are still looking for danger signs in your relationship, here’s another one.

    Keep your eyes open. Grab some more coffee if you need to.


    Rather than seeing my role in the relationship problem, it’s easier to blame you.

    ‘It’s not my fault we’re always late!’

    And wherever you find defensiveness there is always blaming.

    ‘If you weren’t so controlling our children wouldn’t be so out of control!’

    Have you ever wondered why your partner sometimes reacts in a way that is extreme? Or have you noticed yourself doing that?

    There’s a reason behind that extreme reaction that your may not be seeing.

    Experts tell us that about 90% of the emotions driving our defensive reactions come from history.

    If that’s true then your partner is only the trigger.

    The source of your reaction might be a childhood wound, frustration or need of which you’re not even conscious.

    This means you might be blaming your partner for a frustration they are triggering, but in reality that is not where the pain is actually coming from.

    I think I would want to know this, if it is indeed true.

    It sounds complicated and mysterious but really it isn’t.

    And there is a solution. Keep reading.

    The final sign that my relationship is tanking is…


    Stonewalling = Rather than talk about our problems, I’m too hopeless to even try.

    ‘Just forget it.’

    You stonewall when it’s just too painful to even hope that things could ever change.

    There’s a fatal sense of resignation that is palpable when partners are stonewalling.

    Some see stonewalling as a way to keep the peace.

    But things that aren’t talked out always get acted out.

    In one way or another.

    Sometimes a partner will stuff it until it blows like a volcano.

    Others will stuff it until it severs the feeling of connection completely.

    Then they don’t even care to resolve it.

    That’s when stonewalling becomes your lifestyle.

    You’re no longer living with your partner; you’re only living with his or her defenses. Yikes.

    Stonewalling may avoid conflict temporarily but it won’t help you reconnect.

    Is there a better way?

    “So, what is the answer, Chuck? How do I eliminate these destructive patterns from my relationship?”

    Imago Couples Dialogue

    This is the tool I use with couples every week in many different forms.

    (Click here to print out this tool for your own use.)

    Everything we do in Imago Relationship Therapy is based on this basic and powerful approach.

    It’s more than a communication tool. Communication isn’t your only problem. You can communicate and still not feel connected.

    It’s more than conflict resolution. You can even resolve your problem but still not feel connected. As a matter of fact, if you’re just talking about your problem, you may never solve THE problem, which is not feeling connected.

    It’s more than active listening. It’s listening in a way that leads to differentiation – seeing your partner’s reality as valid, and empathizing in a way that transforms how you see your partner while making it safe for you to connect.

    Imago Couples Dialogue can help you transform your relationship.


    You can turn…

    CRITICISM into healthy self-expression that results in connection.

    CONTEMPT into a safe connection where romance is rekindled.

    DEFENSIVENESS into a conscious awareness of my own part in the problem, and that my partner is not the villain I thought she was.

    STONEWALLING into a new hope that I can be heard and validated by my partner, and that he can be with me in my pain and in my fear.

    Wow! I want that.

    Here’s how the dialogue works.

    There are thee parts: Mirroring, Validation and Empathy.


    Mirroring slows things way down.

    Mirroring involves taking turns talking, where one talks and the other listens.

    It seems awkward and wooden at first but keep going because it works.

    If you’re the one listening, after your partner gives a few sentences about their concern, repeat what was said in your own words. Then ask, “Did I get it?” Then ask, “Is there more about that?”

    Those questions help you stay curious and regulate your own reactions.

    Let her continue talking until she feel completely heard.

    MIRRORING says to your partner, “You matter. I see you. You’re worth being heard and understood.”

    After your partner says everything needed to be said, SUMMARIZE it, to once again make sure you got it.

    Then the next step is Validation.


    To validate what your partner said simply complete this sentence:

    “What you said makes sense. And what makes sense about it is…”

    VALIDATION says to your partner, “Even though I may see things differently, you make sense.”

    Did you get that part about “I may see things differently”?

    That’s right. Don’t let your need to be right sabotage the dialogue that will help you connect.

    Here’s the point: Your partner IS different!

    Your partner is not what you project on him or what you expect her to be.

    That’s romantic fantasy.

    Now you’re in reality.

    A real relationship with ANOTHER person. Did you get that?  an “other” person. Different from you. Wow!

    Though the Dialogue process what you discover is she’s not what you thought she was.

    But now you’re curious and exploring her, rather that playing tug of war with her.

    And you find that, although there is brokenness and scars and sensitivities you didn’t know about, she really is beautiful and fascinating in all that brokenness.

    Now you’re on your way t0 connecting!


    You empathize by finishing these kinds of statements with what you now see and understand.

    “Given all that, I imagine you feel…”

    “Are those the feelings?”

    Empathizing says to your partner,

    I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy.”

    “And I’m present with you in that feeling.”

    Keep going in this Dialogue until you see a breakthrough in your relationship.

    So, if you see some of these predictors of doom in your relationship,

    the Couples Dialogue can help you address and eliminate them, and bring you into a deeper connection with each other.

    (Click here to print out The Couple’s Dialogue.)

    Try it! And let me know if I can help!

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